The Early Social Game Winners and Losers After Facebook’s Platform Changes

When Facebook implemented a flurry of platform changes that curtailed some viral marketing tactics in early December, developers scrambled to revive tactics. There was the thought that this might level the playing field a bit, taking some wind out of the sails of the most aggressive viral marketers.

To get some initial feel for the impact of these platform changes — and to provide a benchmark for the industry — we looked at Daily Active Users (DAU), Monthly Active Users (MAU) and the resulting Sticky Factors (DAU/MAU) for top developers on December 7, 2009 (this was around the time the platform changes were starting to go into effect) and January 5, 2010. We assume that the impact of the holidays was across-the-board dips around Christmas and New Year’s Day for these titles. It also comes with the caveat that developer level numbers are not necessarily unique users as a user may play multiple games made by the same developer.

Developer MAU 12/7 MAU 1/5 % Diff DAU 12/7 DAU 12/5 % Diff Sticky 12/7 Sticky 1/5 % Diff
Zynga 219.5 mil 231.3 mil 5.4% 64.1 mil 62.4 mil -2.6% 29% 27% -7.6%
Playfish 59.5 mil 55.8 mil -6.2% 11.7 mil 9.5 mil -19% 20% 17% -13%
CrowdStar 38.3 mil 48.3 mil 26.2% 10.8 mil 11.0 mil 2.2% 28% 23% -19%
Playdom 22.7 mil 20.8 mil -8.3% 3.2 mil 3.3 mil 1.6% 14% 16% 10.7%
6 waves 38.7 mil 33.9 mil -13% 7.8 mil 6.7 mil -15% 20% 20% -2.4%
Slashkey 18.4 mil 16.3 mil -12% 5.1 mil 3.7 mil -28% 28% 23% -18%
PopCap 10.4 mil 10.1 mil -2.6% 3.1 mil 2.9 mil -7.8% 30% 29% -5.3%
TOTAL 407.5 mil 416.4 mil 2.2% 105.8 mil 99.4 mil -6.0% 26% 24% -8.0%

This initial cut makes it appear that some of the biggest developers (Zynga, CrowdStar and Playdom) have done reasonably well, but each of these developers actually launched a significant new game during the period. Because new games typically haven’t reached a steady state (which inflates the sticky factor) and because we’re more interested in the impact on games existing prior to the platform changes, let’s look at the numbers without Zynga’s PetVille, Playfish’s Poker Rivals, CrowdStar’s Happy Island and Playdom’s Tiki Farm:

Developer MAU 12/7 MAU 1/5 % Diff DAU 12/7 DAU 12/5 % Diff Sticky 12/7 Sticky 1/5 % Diff
Zynga 218.5 mil 212.4 mil -2.8% 64.1 mil 58.4 mil -8.9% 29% 27% -6.3%
Playfish 59.1 mil 54.3 mil -8.1% 11.6 mil 9.4 mil -19% 20% 17% -12%
CrowdStar 38.3 mil 42.0 mil 9.6% 10.8 mil 9.2 mil -14% 28% 22% -22%
Playdom 22.7 mil 18.7 mil -17% 3.2 mil 2.7 mil -18% 14% 14% -0.7%
6 waves 38.7 mil 33.9 mil -12% 7.8 mil 6.7 mil -14% 20% 20% -2.4%
Slashkey 18.4 mil 16.3 mil -12% 5.1 mil 3.7 mil -28% 28% 23% -18%
PopCap 10.4 mil 10.1 mil -2.6% 3.1 mil 2.9 mil -7.8% 30% 29% -5.3%
TOTAL 406.2 mil 387.7 mil -4.6% 105.7 mil 92.8 mil -12% 26% 24% -8.0%

The total line is not for all developers on the Facebook platform, just the seven aggregated above, so there is some bias in the aggregated numbers because Zynga makes up over half of the total MAU and DAU numbers. But given this caveat, the total line suggests that so far, these developers are seeing on average a 4.6% decline in MAU and a 12.2% decline DAU which has reduced the sticky factor by 8%. I believe MAU numbers will continue to decline a bit more before they stabilize a bit.

The Winners…so far

Without the new games, CrowdStar appears to be the only developer that increased their MAU, but even this is somewhat skewed by the fact that Happy Pets had launched in mid-November and was still seeing some increase in the beginning of December. CrowdStar’s Happy Aquarium maintained a relatively flat MAU, but saw a steady decline in DAU (down 20% from 8.17 million to 6.64 million), driving CrowdStar’s overall sticky factor to the worst drop amongst the group. Another trend here is that each successive title launched seems to be reaching a plateau that is lower than the previous launch, mirroring something we pointed out for Zynga’s games recently. Happy Island is still only a month old, but it’s looking like the potential of sim games may be reaching a new ceiling.

The only developers with below average declines in both DAU and MAU were PopCap and Zynga. Pop Cap’s Bejewled Blitz has actually been impressively consistent, bouncing back after each holiday-induced dip — its addictive game play and short, 1-minute sessions (perfect for the Facebook audience) helped it make more than one top ten Facebook games list for 2009.

Zynga’s individual games have been a mixed bag: FarmVille is still down 2 million DAU from its December peak of 28.7 million, but Zynga Poker (which we previously thought might be losing focus with the rise of sim games) seems to be chugging along (its synchronous play, scale, and allowance of in-game friends made it less dependent on viral marketing to retain users). In light of the core changes to its business model, Zynga has been especially aggressive in trying to retain users, giving away items that usually required hard cold cash through a slew of promotions in its games that also drove gifting (especially helpful after the pre-game gifting interstitial was banned by Facebook):

  • FarmVille pushed gifting of presents – every 20 presents received from friends helped grow your Christmas tree. Then after December 24th, users could open these presents to get a number of decorative vanity items like reindeer, cats, sleighs but also free 1-, 5- and 10-packs of fuel for tractors (usually only available for cash payments). FishVille had a similar gifting of presents, as did PetVille.
  • Mafia Wars created a gift safe house, providing users free rare items, as well as promoting gifting that provided extra XP or health and reward points (which can usually only be earned by completing levels or by spending cash).

And those promotions are carrying into the New Year:

  • FarmVille is in the midst of “free fuel week” where users can gain a tank of gas (something previously you could only buy for cash) each day they come back (it would seem to be a test of a daily lottery system to get users to come back each day).
  • Fans of Roller Coaster Kingdom were given 75 Coaster Cash (something that would have cost users $14.50 in real dollars) in an effort to revitalize massively declining MAU and DAU numbers (it may also be a way to meet the issue that items like park expansion were still gated based on the number of friends a user has – a practice currently in violation of the new Facebook policies).
  • While not cash driven, PetVille users had the fee for reactivating their pet waived to get users back after the holidays in one of the longest (text-wise) notifications I’ve seen to date.

It’s hard to say what the financial impact of these giveaways will have (it could provide enough users a taste of what they could be paying for to push them into buying them themselves), but if they are curtailed, I would expect the DAU and MAU numbers for Zynga to fall further than they have to date.

Losing Ground

Playfish, Slaskey and Playdom all had relatively higher than average declines in both MAU and DAU over the last 30 days. Playfish appears to be continuing their decline since the purchase by Electronic Arts in early November. Pet Society rebounded a bit with the launch of a daily lottery in early December, but it revised its slumped much like Restaurant City after the holidays without aggressive marketing promotion (PetVille passed Pet Society in DAU earlier this week). Now two months since the acquisition, EA appears to have done little to prop up Playfish’s position (newcomer CrowdStar passed Playfish in total DAU earlier this week).

Slashkey and Playdom both saw some pretty large drops in the DAU of their farm sim games: Farm Town (Slashkey’s only title) dropped nearly 28% while Playdom’s (Lil) Farm Life dropped nearly 30% from its mid-December highs. Playdom’s numbers, though, could be partially explained as cannibalization by its new farm title, Tiki Farm – the rise in daily active users for Tiki Farm seems to nearly mirror the decline in (Lil) Farm Life:

Managing Churn Becomes Crucial

It is still early to assess the full impact of the Facebook platform changes, but there is no question that the core economic model (getting 2-4% of users to buy virtual items) is drastically modified when churn increases. Developers have traditionally stemmed churn by a) building better games or b) acquiring new players through ad buys and viral growth to replace the users that leave. With three core viral tactics removed or marginalized (and the eventual loss of Notifications on the horizon), developers need to build more compelling games and features to keep users or innovate with new tactics and spend a lot more in advertising to drive new users.

Based on the numbers above, it appears PopCap has been able to maintain an audience based on its proven hit casual game mechanic in Bejeweled Blitz and it will be interesting to see if any more Pop Cap titles make their way to Facebook or whether they focus on their own social free-to-play destination site.

At the other end of the spectrum, Zynga’s aggressive promotion and give-aways appear to be buying it time while it tries to figure out how to revive and develop new viral mechanics – a luxury afforded by the recent influx of investment that most other developers can’t match – as well as figure out what game mechanics to develop next.

Eric von Coelln is a casual games and MMO marketing veteran who focuses on emerging metrics in social games. He is currently a New York based freelance consultant to games and social media companies. You can find his blog here.

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